It’s Cane-Cuttin’ Time

The following Saturday Jeff came to pick me up at around 10:00. He had asked that I locate a place for us to work that day. He told me to find a place with long open hallways that wouldn’t be very crowded on a Saturday morning.

We went to a church a little way from our house. “Okay,” began Jeff. “Let’s review the sighted guide techniques you learned last time.” We walked up and down the hallways. I couldn’t believe how fast Jeff moved and it was difficult, at first, to keep up with him.

“Yikes,” I said. “You’re flying. I haven’t walked this fast in weeks.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you haven’t. But blindness is no reason to adopt a slower gait than usual.”

Mulling over this announcement as we zipped down the halls, I wasn’t so sure but I kept my silence.

Presently, though, Jeff said, “Now I’m going to walk a bit slower. We’ll walk along the hallway together and I want you to listen carefully as we go. Tell me if you hear anything different as we go along.”

“Hear anything, what do you mean,” I asked.

“Just listen,” replied Jeff. After a few minutes of walking in silence I began to notice something familiar. I had heard these changes when walking up and down the hall at home.

“Oh,” I said, “We’re walking past doorways and I can hear the difference when we pass one.”

“That’s it,” said Jeff. “Keep listening.”

“Whoa,” I said after a few more minutes. “There’s something on the left. Is it an intersecting hallway?”

“Exactly,” said Jeff. “Now you’re getting the idea.”

“Now it’s time for you to walk on your own a bit,” he said.

“I don’t know about that,” I muttered.

“Trust me,” he said. “Here’s what you do. Reach out with your left hand until you feel the wall. That’s it. Now, hold your right arm across the front of your body like this.”

He positioned my right arm at an angle so that it was in front of my abdomen.

“This is called the lower hand and forearm protective technique,” he said. “Now walk down the hall trailing your left hand lightly along the wall. Your right arm will contact anything blocking your way so you won’t run into it.”

I walked. As I passed by doors I’d lose contact with the wall for a couple of steps but it was always right there when I reached the other side of the doorway. Jeff showed me another position for my right arm, this time placing it so that it was in front of my chest and face.

Then it was time for lunch. My mother had packed us a picnic lunch and we found a room with table and chairs. Sitting down gratefully I asked, “What’s next?”

“After lunch I’ll cut your cane and then it’ll be time for you to begin learning to use it,” said Jeff.

“Cut it?” I asked.

“Yes, your cane needs to be the proper length for your height and your stride.” It was pleasant, sitting there and munching our sandwiches together.

“Have you been doing this very long?” I asked.

“Yes, a few years,” Jeff replied.

“Do you ever have people who have only been blind for a few weeks, like me?” I asked.

“Yes,” and continuing he said, “But I seldom get people who seem so eager and willing to learn O&M like you are.”

Startled, I asked, “But why wouldn’t someone want to learn to walk independently?”

“Most of the time people who have been blind for such a short period of time aren’t thrilled about learning cane travel.”

“But why?” I asked. This didn’t make sense to me. My reliance on others to move about had been driving me crazy.

“Blindness still has a pretty negative connotation in the world,” said Jeff. “People seem to think it’s something to be ashamed of.”

“But why?” I asked again.

“Well, think about what you know about blindness and blind people,” said Jeff. “The Bible is the worst. Blind people are depicted in the Bible as beggars. Or else they’re only mentioned in connection with being cured of their blindness. If you think about it just the phrase, ‘cured of blindness’, makes it sound like blindness is some kind of sickness that everybody hopes they’ll recover from.”

This struck home. Into my mind rushed all of those early morning periods of wishful thinking before I opened my eyes. Finally, and very slowly, I said, “Yes, I see what you mean.”

“The other thing,” continued Jeff, “Is that most of the people I work with are losing their sight gradually. It’s a lot more difficult to adjust to gradual sight loss than having it go all at once like you did.”

“You’re kidding!” I spluttered. “What do you mean?”

“When people lose their sight gradually they can pretend, up to a point, that they can still see. They don’t necessarily have to learn to use a cane right away or make a great many other changes in their lives. We call it, ‘passing’. You know, trying to pass as a sighted person.”

“So they fake it,” I asked incredulously.

“Yep,” said Jeff. “It can cause all kinds of problems too.”

“I can’t imagine,” I said thoughtfully. “I wish I had had time to adjust gradually.”

“Why?” asked Jeff. “You only have to go through the trauma of losing your sight once. You know that you, absolutely, have to learn Braille and learn to use a cane. Believe me, you’re further down the road to adjusting to or accepting your blindness than you know.”

I hesitated for a minute and then blurted, “But this is so hard! Every morning when I wake up I think that maybe when I open my eyes again I’ll be able to see.” I rushed on, “Every time I go to do something I get drawn up short, forgetting that I don’t know how to do whatever it is now that I can’t see.” And out rushed all of the worries and concerns about my future that I had been bottling up. There was something about Jeff that made me feel comfortable about pouring forth all of my doubts and fears.

Jeff listened calmly until I ran out of steam. “Well, that was quite a speech,” he said when I finally fell silent. And suddenly I was laughing through my tears. Jeff laughed too. I don’t know if it was the laughter or the tears but suddenly I felt a lot better.

“Time for dessert and then it’s back to the grindstone,” said Jeff with mock sternness. He handed me a cookie, took one himself and we ate them in silence. When we had finished our cookies, Jeff picked up a cane I hadn’t realized he even had, and he said, “Let’s go in that big room at the end of the hall.”

Once there I asked to see my new cane. Handing it to me Jeff said, “It’s way too long for you. Let me measure and then I’ll cut it for you. Stand straight for a second.”

Jeff placed the cane vertically in front of me and told me to hold still. I felt him touch my sternum and then he said, “Okay, forty eight inches should do it.”

He cut the cane and then fitted a nylon tip on it.

“I’m using a marshmallow tip for you,” he said. “It’s larger than the old pencil type cane tips and it’s not as likely to catch in cracks and stuff. Okay, here you go.”

I took my cane feeling like Jeff was giving me the keys to some kingdom. I knew perfectly well that this cane would afford me independence once I learned to use it. I examined it carefully and then said, “The grip feels just like the grip on a golf club.”

Laughing, Jeff replied, “That’s because it is a grip from a golf club.”

“Oh,” I muttered. And then gripping the cane as though it really was a golf club I took a golfer’s stance and pretended that I was going to take a swing at Jeff. “Watch out!” I said. “I used to swing a mean golf club.”

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’m the boss here and there’ll be none of that!”

“Right,” I replied. “Is this better?” I stood with both feet together looking down at the floor pretending to be demure. “How’s this?”

Putting on a voice like WC Fields, he said, “”That’s better my little chickadee.”

“Are you left or right handed?” Jeff asked.

“Right,” I replied.

“Okay, here’s how to hold your cane. You want the flat part of the grip to be on the right. Then you grasp it with your right hand. Extend your index finger straight down the cane. You can think of the cane as an extension of your index finger.”

“Like this?” I asked, assuming the hand position that he had described.

“Yes, exactly. Then you want to extend your right arm ahead and down at about a 45 degree angle and try to hold your hand right at the center line of your body.”

Adjusting the afore mentioned parts of my body I asked, “Like this? Hmm, feels kind of funny,” I muttered.

“Don’t worry, it will feel perfectly natural before long,” Jeff said. “I want you to practice swinging the cane before you actually move. The movement of the cane should come from your wrist only. Your arm should remain relatively still and straight in the center of your body. You’ll be tapping the cane from left to right as you walk. The distance you swing the cane should approximate the distance between your shoulders. Here, let me show you.”

He stepped forward and, grasping my right hand, moved it from side to side showing me the correct distance to swing the cane on each side. Jeff had me tap the cane from side to side without moving until I got the feel of the correct arc. Then he showed me how to keep in step. With one hand on my shoulder and one on my right wrist he explained that I should tap the cane on the left side as I stepped forward with my right foot and vice versa.

I walked forward slowly thinking about keeping my hand centered, swinging the cane the correct distance from side to side, and keeping in step. It was difficult. Finally Jeff told me to go for it. It felt awkward. Jeff encouraged me to keep moving and pick up my pace. Eventually I hit a sort of rhythm. As I approached the end of the room Jeff told me to stop. Then he’d trot back to the other end and have me walk towards his voice. It was difficult to get started on each pass but got easier the more I did it.

“Okay,” said Jeff, “How did that feel?”

“Um, okay, I guess.” We stopped for a few minutes to review the various components of this cane travel deal.

And then we did some more walking. “Hang on,” said Jeff. “You’re not in step.”

“Oh, sorry about that,” I said, coming to a halt. “But what difference does being in step make? I mean, as long as I’m swinging wide enough to cover the width of my body, why do I have to be in step?”

“Because you’re clearing the space where your next footfall will land,” said Jeff. “Go ahead, take a step with your right foot and tap on your left side.” I did as he instructed. “Now stop,” Jeff said. “Think about where your next step will land. Your cane is touching right about where your left foot is going to be in a second. Because you’ve just touched there with your cane you know that space is clear of obstacles.”

I had to think about this for a minute. Then finally, “Oh, I get it now.”

“Hang on, I need to think for a second.”

Once I had my mind wrapped around the concept I started walking again.

“Yes,” said Jeff. “Now you’ve got it.” I walked up and down the length of the room several times trying to get used to staying in step.

“Great,” said Jeff. “Now let’s go out in the hall here.” Keeping my mind on staying in step, I followed the sound of Jeff’s voice to the door.

“Okay, go for it,” Jeff encouraged.

And, off, down the hallway I went. It felt great. I was walking by myself for the first time in weeks. Paying attention to nothing except keeping my hand centered and staying in step I was brought up short when my cane tip collided with the wall at the other end of the hall. “Hey,” I called back to Jeff. “It works! It stopped me before I walked slap into this wall.”

“Yes, great job,” Jeff called back. “You’re definitely getting the hang of it.”

We spent the rest of the lesson with me walking up and down the corridors. I loved the feeling that I was walking on my own. Finally, Jeff said that it was time to go. I opened the tactual watch that Vera had given me and felt the hands.

“Wow, how did it get to be so late?” I asked in astonishment.

“Time flies…” began Jeff.

“When you’re having fun,” I finished.

Laughing together, we left the church.